Tony Jaa — the man touted as the “next Bruce Lee” — wasn’t in regular form. Worldwide audiences were used to seeing Jaa dripping with sweat, his hair slicked and his muscles bubbling to the surface. He was a hero in his native Thailand, revered for his incredible athleticism and on-screen magnetism that had him shooting to the stratosphere of cinema.
But a TV appearance in July of 2008 showed a different side of Jaa. He looked disheveled with his shirt loose, his hair ragged. His eyes, usually glowing with intensity, were regulated to whimpering, wet and bloodshot caverns. The two years it had taken to write, direct, and star in the sequel to Ong-Bak — the film that made him famous — had taken an immense toll on the action star. It wasn’t always so difficult.
The Next Bruce
Growing up, Tony Jaa idolized on-screen action legends like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. He practiced the moves he saw, hoping to emulate the timing and ferocity of those maestros of mayhem. “I’ve been watching films since I was 10,” Jaa said in an interview with IGN. “I started practicing the stunts that they did on my own.”
Martial arts were in Jaa’s blood. His father was a Muay Thai boxer, and by the age of 10, Jaa began training in the same discipline. As his hunger for the arts grew, so did his ambition. By 15, he was being trained by Phanna Rithrikai, a martial arts master and stunt choreographer for some of Thailand’s biggest action epics. In his early 20s, Jaa excelled in all forms of sport — including sword fighting and track and field — at the University of Mahamarakam. He was also getting steady work as a stunt double under the guidance of Phanna. Jaa has four acting credits from 1994 to 2001, even providing some stunt work in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.
Following years of stunts and training, providing his natural talents the nourishment they needed to make him one of the most well-rounded athletes in cinema, the Thai actor finally got his own starring role in 2003’s Ong-Bak. “So, I talked to my master, and also the director, and talked about creating a plot for a movie,” Jaa told IGN. “I had to train as an actor and in choreographing the scenes with the actors who were starring in the movie.”
Combining wireless stunt work ala Jackie Chan (“The market scene was the hardest one to shoot.”), mixed with a confluence of fighting styles ala Bruce Lee, Jaa was immediately being championed as the next big thing in action cinema. “Genius. Perfection. Thai-style fighting with sequences that will make you shout at the screen,” wrote one critic. “Jaa combines speed, strength, and fluidity in a convincing bid to turn wire stunts into yesterday’s fad and return simple physical prowess to the forefront,” said another.
With notoriety came more film offers, commercials, fame, money, and endorsement deals.
In 2005, Jaa released The Protector, a follow-up to his mega-hit Ong-Bak that fell on deaf ears due to its bizarre narrative and shoddy direction. Still, it showcased Jaa’s incredible feats of athleticism and did little to derail his buzz. Going back to the franchise that started the Jaa craze, Ong-Bak 2 would change Jaa’s life forever.
Now a man with a powerful portfolio, Jaa was given buckets of creative control for Ong-Bak 2, a prequel to its predecessor. Jaa had writing, production, directing, and acting credits (despite having little experience in the former), taking the helm from his mentor, Phanna Rithrikai, and previous Ong-Bak director Prachya Pinkaew. The film began its production in October of 2006, and things seemed to be going just fine. It was set for release in December 2008, and at the Cannes Film Festival that year, a promotional video for the prequel was shown that wowed audiences. Then, in July of 2008, Variety broke the story that Jaa had been missing since June, just as the film’s production was entering its final stretch. Very few knew where he was, and the production of Ong-Bak 2 was on hold until its star, writer, and director could be found.